North Carolina still has plenty of time to combat the monkeypox stigma

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The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has expanded eligibility for the monkeypox vaccine to prevent the virus from spreading further.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has expanded eligibility for the monkeypox vaccine to prevent the virus from spreading further.

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services

You might assume that more than two years after a global pandemic killed nearly 25,500 people in North Carolina alone, we’d learned from our mistakes and started preparing for the looming second disease.

Instead, we seem to be saying the wrong things again, and the people who will suffer are the LGBTQIA+ community, particularly black and brown men, nonbinary people, and trans women. North Carolina had 53 confirmed cases of monkeypox as of Friday afternoon. The majority of cases are in Mecklenburg County, but cases occur in 11 other counties. Despite the vulnerability we all face from the virus, the group that is still remembered is “men who have sex with men,” something activists say creates a stigma akin to the early years of the AIDS epidemic.

“Our society is often stigmatized when it comes to public health,” Reppi Kern, director of education policy at Equality NC, told me. They state that monkeypox comes at a specific time, as transphobic and homophobic rhetoric has been billed across the country and within our state over the past few years. Kern and other disease advocates worried that the current characterization of the disease would only lead to more hateful rhetoric and action.

Currently, the vast majority of cases are reported among men who have sex with men. Despite this, it is not a sexually transmitted disease, and there is a real possibility that other cases will go undetected, whether due to people not getting tested or misdiagnosing something else.

“What we’re seeing across the country is that clinicians need to be able to differentiate between monkeypox, herpes, and syphilis,” Elizabeth Finley, director of communications for the National Alliance of STD Managers. “They can look very similar in some ways.”

However, the test itself was difficult. The first man to contract MPX in County Durham had traveled to Europe, where the disease is more prevalent, and says he knew right away what the sores were when they appeared. Despite the information he had, he says he struggled to get people to listen to him – even with blisters on his face.

“It’s a process where I felt like I had to fight every step of this to get a test or take it seriously and nobody did it until the test came back positive,” the 29-year-old, who hasn’t publicly shared his name, told ABC11.

Even the name itself, “monkeypox,” carries a stigma that health care professionals now have to reckon with. Ashwin Vasan, commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, recently joined advocates in calling for the disease to be renamed to reduce stigma against the black, brown and LGBTQ+ community. The virus did not come from monkeys. It got its name from research studies on primates. Vassan reminded the World Health Organization of the racist and anti-gay misinformation campaign since the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, in which people began to believe that the disease came from sexual activity between Africans and primates.

Currently, the chance of dying from monkeypox is very low. It happened; There have been five deaths from the virus in the past year. They all occurred in Africa, where smallpox began in the 1970s. In 2017, there was an epidemic in Ethiopia. Now, the virus is finally making its way to Europe and the Americas.

If you do the math, you’ll notice the 50-year distance between the discovery of monkeypox and now, and the five years since the epidemic hit Ethiopia. Monkeypox began to appear in the United States in May. A month later, North Carolina had its first recorded case. However, it appears that any preparation that should have been done in the weeks, months, and even years prior to this has not been carried out.

If we have another epidemic, we have to learn that picking people up can increase stigma, even inadvertently. We must stop treating illness as a moral failure; Instead, we must ask ourselves whether there was enough by the government and the people in power to prevent this catastrophe in the first place.

Sarah Pequineau is a McClatchy opinion writer for the News & Observer in Raleigh.

Sarah Pequineo is a Raleigh-based opinion writer for the North Carolina Opinion Team in McClatchy and a member of the editorial board. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2019, and has been writing in North Carolina ever since.

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